Blount County Commissioner Jim Hammontree often shares a joke or humorous story during the public comment period at school board meetings but last week began by explaining he had a serious topic to discuss.
Hammontree, who is using a cane, described the difficulty he had climbing into the stadium at William Blount High School to watch the previous week’s football game.
“Since I’m prone to falling, I noticed that those hand rails — what there are — are too far apart, and they don’t go all the way to the top,” Hammontree said.
“I’m beginning to think that maybe you should raze the two stadia and start from the ground up,” he said. “Now where’s the money coming from, that’s the —.”
“Yes, commissioner, where is the money coming from?” Board of Education Chair Debbie Sudhoff asked, as attendees at the Oct. 3 meeting laughed.
“That’s the bigger question,” Hammontree concluded.
Sudhoff said she has witnessed the accessibility issue at the stadiums for more than a decade.
“I have seen parents literally carry disabled students into the stands so that they can be part of the high school experience and experience football,” she said. “We want to see our stadiums completely compliant with ADA so that all of our community can enjoy football.”
Heritage High School opened in 1977 and William Blount in 1979, more than a decade before the federal Americans with Disabilities Act began requiring public facilities to be accessible. Heritage also was built before building codes required it to have a fire-suppression system.
Last year the school district spent nearly $500,000 to seal the two stadiums, to prevent further deterioration from water, as well as to stabilize existing railings.
A nearly $100 million comprehensive proposal to renovate the high schools included about $5.3 million for improvements to the athletics facilities at the two schools. Part of that was a design to push out the front row of the stands and add ramps to provide elevated, accessible seating for people with disabilities, said Bill Steverson, principal with the architect for the project, Michael Brady Inc.
“We would love to get our second level of improvements done with approval to use some funds to do that,” Stan Burnette, Blount County Schools supervisor of student services and a member of the district’s Athletics Committee, said after Hammontree’s comment. “That is on the agenda. A lot of people think it’s just field houses, but it’s total stadium improvements.”
In August, the school board approved spending $1 million from its savings, called the fund balance, to give each high school $500,000 for a new football field house. During that meeting there was no discussion of public accessibility issues, and William Blount Athletic Director Scott Cupp confirmed last week that the plan was just to use the money for football field houses, with any excess returned to the fund balance.
The Blount County Budget Committee voted 4-1 in September against allowing the school district to use the money from its fund balance for the field houses.
$4 million question
BCS still is figuring out how to spend an estimated $4 million in new money this year the county approved for high school renovations through Fund 177 — property taxes not shared with the two city school districts. Schools Director Rob Britt said first-year priorities would be to replace the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems at both high schools; renovate science labs and classrooms; and install a fire-protection sprinkler system at Heritage.
Since then the plan has narrowed to HVAC replacement at William Blount and science labs at Heritage, although the school district hopes it can use savings from energy improvements at the schools to provide more funds for renovations.
“They need more money to do what they need to do,” Barry Brooke, an executive vice president for LawlerWood LLC, which is managing the high school renovation project for the school board, said in a phone interview this week.
The HVAC system at William Blount is a higher priority because Heritage installed about 60 new units in recent years and moisture is more of a problem at WBHS, he explained. The cost of installing the fire suppression alone at HHS was estimated at about $1.7 million in the full renovation proposal.
With only about $4 million expected from the county for the renovations this year and no guarantee of future funding, “We’re going to get as much done as we can,” Steverson, of Michael Brady Inc., said in a phone interview this week.